On Rants and Roundabout Reviews

• December 2011

I heard of it, as I hear of most new book releases these days, through the Twitter grapevine. Someone tweeted that it was up for a major literary prize, and I immediately tuned in. I later learned that the author was not born in the Caribbean, but that the matter of her book and her heritage were based in the Caribbean. I bought it, read it, and wasn’t impressed (I was actually annoyed with it), but its historical subject matter was of definite interest. So I blogged about it while I was still annoyed, and of course wrote many things I wish I hadn’t, though they were honestly how I felt about the book at the time . . . and subsequently. Should I have waited and written something more cool headed and less harsh? Did I do the writer (a woman . . . working in a male-dominated space) and her book a disservice by voicing my opinion so strongly so publicly and so negatively? Do I, as a supporter of Caribbean books and Caribbean writers, have a duty to be nice always (and only) when I write about Caribbean books and authors? And who is reading this stuff anyway? These are some of the questions I have struggled with since I began blogging about books about four years ago. They are questions I continue to struggle with each time I work on a review.

One of the things I am not is a dispassionate reader (if there is such a thing). Like most people, my reading choices are on subjects I like and feel passionately about, so my responses to what I read are expectedly visceral. Add to that the immediacy of the web medium in which I write, and the result has been (may continue to be) lots of agitating spontaneous writing. That in itself is not necessarily what keeps me up at night. I can sleep after declaring a book a disappointment or a “sluggish read,” because I usually take pains to say why I think so. But, an unforeseeable problem can arise at any moment. In one case, it was an e-mail from someone who liked my use of the word sluggish to describe a certain book—the writer was someone he knew personally and obviously didn’t like. He thanked me for the review and said he would spread the word about my blog. I consider his glee at my negative review more disturbing than the correspondence from the writer herself who subsequently wrote me expressing displeasure at my use of sluggish to describe her book. So to avoid being a tool in a viral grudge fest, I now have a growing list of words to avoid in my reviews, though much of my initial emotion is usually tempered after I’ve sat through a few editing sessions with any given blog review. The process of deleting words, rearranging commas, and the like can dull the edge of any spirited rant.

The bigger problem—bigger than the potential of becoming an unwilling participant in a viral attack—is of course that I write in a very small, and thus very noticeable, arena with overly anxious writers and their agents, friends, and family members breathing too close. The Internet may be a vast place, but people with common interests tend to frequent the same places, and the Internet places where people with common interests in Caribbean literature can go are still relatively few. The Caribbean Review of Books and sx salon are two of the most frequently updated, reputable sites where one can find book reviews, features, discussions, interviews, and new work by Caribbean writers for free. That’s not nearly enough to accommodate the books to be reviewed and works to be featured by Caribbean writers. Lit blogs like mine (I hope) can help fill some of that demand for space, but as the situation currently is, one gets the sense of a certain amount of jostling for positive attention among Caribbean writers. I attended a book fair and conference in New York in December of 2010 and was surprised at how many writers offered their books for review—books that are unfortunately mostly still unread on my shelves. In this small internet space, a negative review can loom rather large. For that reason, I tend to refuse free book offers. Except for the occasional publisher’s offer of a free copy of an Edwidge Danticat book, for instance—one I’m relatively certain I’ll be in favor of—I buy the majority of the books I review. That helps to keep some of the breathing off my neck.

As a panelist at the aforementioned conference on Caribbean writing, I was the only nonfiction writer, and one of the questions raised was whether a person “self-appointed” (as I am) needs special qualification to be a book reviewer or critic—a question which might have had as its basis the idea that book reviewing or critiquing is an academic pursuit and not just for anyone with access to the Internet and a blog host. One of my original reasons for blogging about books was because I was an academic reader—a student first, then a writing and literature teacher (not yet retired, by the way)—and I understand the benefit of having easy access to sound information on a book. Seventeen or so years ago, a book review or review essay, the kind found in a general periodical or specialized journal, was one step along the dusty library trail towards conducting full research on a primary text. It was research that entailed lifting, carrying, and searching the tiny printed pages of heavy leather-bound collections and hoping the article or book you were searching for was actually in the library that day (usually an entire day set aside for library work). Then there was the painful but inevitable discarding of more than half the material you’d hunted down because it just simply wasn’t relevant to your research. And of course, it all meant another day’s work of hunting. Following that were the days or weeks of reading and assimilating material and adding something credibly new to the lot, with the end result being a fully fleshed-out, original paper. It wasn’t work for the fainthearted, or the out-of-shape. I wanted to say (to that New York audience): writing a book review these days is child’s play in comparison with the research I conducted back then. But instead I probably just simply said yes, I’m self-appointed and reasonably competent, as are many people who call themselves fiction writers.

I may be as qualified to review books as anyone who slugged through the pre-Internet days of undergrad and graduate school, but I am not an expert on Caribbean literature—its history, its influences, its particular distinctions. Is it necessary to have expert or sound knowledge of Caribbean literature in order to be a credible reviewer or critic of books written by Caribbean writers? How much of that history do the writers themselves know? Should a writer be required to know the history of the genre/category in which he writes? I would argue that a writer doesn’t have to know literary history in order to produce a good work of fiction, but a reviewer or critic who is worth his or her salt should try and figure out some aspect of the literary and cultural context (historical, influential, distinctive) of the book being reviewed. The air from which a book originates, and that gives it the ability to rise or fall, is a reviewer’s or critic’s richest source. I’m not an expert (and one doesn’t have to be), but I know how to do research, and that’s all part of the work of reviewing.

So far, much of the work I have done has confirmed (for me) that the history of Caribbean fiction writing is a male-dominated one, and there is much to celebrate in that history. One can hear and share in the reverence of Kwame Dawes’s words as he describes Elaine Savory’s introduction to Kamau Brathwaite’s “MiddlePassages” lecture:

She knows she is introducing an important writer, and she understands that her introduction should match the gravitas and scope of the lecture that is to follow. Her introduction does more, though. It effectively makes the case for Brathwaite’s importance to world literature.1

 

Many male Caribbean writers are well deserving of our praise and respect, and it’s relatively easy to list about twenty-five Caribbean male writers who have contributed to the canon of writing we can proudly call Caribbean or West Indian. And what of the female writer from the Caribbean? Where does she fit? What is her importance to Caribbean and world literature?

A quick look around the Internet would leave one more or less convinced that books and studies of books written by female writers from the Caribbean are still in the early stages of discovery, still coming into and out of their own air. There is very little substantive research or study on Caribbean women’s writings easily available on the free Internet, but that fact alone is no indication that there is no tradition there; it only indicates a necessity for more attention to be paid to their writing and a necessity for that writing to be made available online. Last year I ran a series on the blog where I featured and reviewed the works of several women writers from the Caribbean, and I’m currently in the middle of running a second one, with a slight difference: this year I invited Caribbean women writers to send me original pieces to be included in the series. I hope to make it an annual series, but I won’t call it true research or study; it can best be described as an attempt to provide information.

I started the series in part as a reaction to a post-reading discussion of the condition of women’s writing here in the United States. Two female writers from the Caribbean (living in the United States) described some of the inequities in the book market world, a world that is, according to them, marked by fewer opportunities for them to attain contracts and to reach readers than for male writers. Their complaints are well supported by stats compiled by VIDA (a women’s organization with a mission to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women) that show, among other things, reviews and features of books by male authors outnumber reviews and features of books by female authors in most of the major review journals and periodicals in the United States and Britain. But even without VIDA, I had my own proof of the inequity in my home. I looked at my bookshelves when I returned home from the reading and saw that books by Caribbean men far outnumbered books written by Caribbean women, and what’s more, the line-up of books I had planned on featuring and reviewing on the blog were all books by men. Now I don’t necessarily think that my (former) bookshelf (was) is an indication that male Caribbean writers have an easier time selling books or securing writing contracts than female Caribbean writers. The only thing evident to me was that if my bookshelf looked like that of any twenty other women who buy and read books by Caribbean writers, then I understood the female writers’ complaint. So driven in other part by a weighty conscience, I started the first Caribbean women writers series.

And who I’m writing for (a question I’ve been asking of some of the women whose work I’ve featured in this second series), who I envision as a reader interested in my off-the-beaten academic-track, emotionally charged reviews and writings on Caribbean books, changes every so often; however, some aspects of the readers I envisioned when I first started to blog remain unchanged: I envision students who (if they are fortunate enough to be reading books by Caribbean writers for a course) might be looking for information for a paper or other class-related assignment; I envision the person interested in books by Caribbean writers who is not reading for a course, but simply for entertainment; I envision the Caribbean writer looking for an additional supportive place for his or her work and the work of other Caribbean writers; and I envision close family members and friends who just want to be supportive of my efforts.

Though my initial passion remains the same, my role and vision as a lit-blogger/reviewer are ever changing—a condition perfectly suited for the medium in which I write. An occurrence shortly after I’d written the piece I mentioned in the opening made me aware of some degree of that change. While I was still reconsidering much of what I had said about the book I’d blogged on so viscerally, I got a request to review it for another publication. In that second review, I put aside some of my annoyance and focused instead on considering it in relation to others like it and tried to envision what its place might be among those other books—how similar, how different, how relevant to a certain Caribbean condition? I have no idea how it was received, but recently someone told me he’d read it and thought it was roundabout but incisive once it zoomed in on the book, and he thanked me for writing it. Of course it was the roundabout that I noted most. It was bitter-sweet, but an important mark of success I’d been seeking. The most important accomplishment for me as an Internet reviewer in this tiny, but largely visible, Caribbean books arena is that I have learned to throw at least some of my corns lightly, respectfully.

 

Charmaine Valere is a book reviewer and an adjunct writing instructor. She blogs on Caribbean books and writers at signifyinguyana.typepad.com/charmainevalere/.

 


1 Kwame Dawes, “Against Ignorance,” Caribbean Review of Books (14 November 2007): 16.

 

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